Our Place in D.C. offers comprehensive help to growing group: female ex-convicts

Sheila Matthews an ex-offender who is helped by Our Place DC on September 24, 2010 in Washington DC.
Sheila Matthews an ex-offender who is helped by Our Place DC on September 24, 2010 in Washington DC. (Mark Gail - The Washington Post)
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By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 27, 2010; 6:16 PM

Sheila Matthews took off her glasses to show me the wicked scar over her left eye.

"Had a patch on it for years. Someone slashed me. It wasn't until I got out of prison that I got it fixed. These people here helped me do it," she said, rolling the fixed eye around to show me how well it works now.

Matthews, 50, showed up at a tiny office in Washington called Our Place wearing her prison-issue sweats two years ago. She used the bus fare the warden gave her to get there, so when she arrived, she officially had zip.

No clothes, no phone, no home, no identification, no paperwork, nothing to prove who she was or who she had once been - a mother, grandmother and preschool teacher.

At that moment, she felt like nothing more than a scarred-up ex-con.

And she became part of a group that is growing at a truly devastating rate. In the past 30 years, the female prison population has grown by 832 percent, according to the Institute of Women in Criminal Justice.

There are about 200,000 women incarcerated in America. Many of them are second-tier, my-boyfriend-was-dealing targets in the war on drugs. Two-thirds of them are mothers.

In most cases, when a man is sentenced, the judge hands the term down, smacks a gavel and moves on.

But when a woman is locked up, there are usually kids involved, and often a judge asks: "Where they are going? Who's going to care for them?"

Take Mom out of the picture, and, usually, another struggling family takes on another child, or foster care absorbs three more.

In most cases, when a woman is locked up, an entire, fragile ecosystem collapses.

And one of the things that really gets to Ashley McSwain, the executive director of Our Place, is how these incarcerated women are treated. Not necessarily by the system, but by the people they love.

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